Blog 3 by Candice Browne
I recently had the opportunity to take part in the monthly CyberTracker – Track and Sign Assessment at LFGA. While this is not a requirement for the FGASA Apprentice Field Guide certification, the Nature Training provided most definitely equips you to be a far better guide. It makes a tremendous difference when conducting a game drive if you are able to identify and interpret the tracks and signs around you, and having a Track and Sign Level as a Guide, definitely makes your CV far more attractive to potential employers.
The level of training prepares you so well for assessment, as anything can happen on the day. It could be raining and muddy, it could have rained the day before and there are many arthropods (insects and their relatives) coming out and leaving tiny tracks, or it could be dry with different soil types presenting unique challenges. Each substrate we work with, gives the same animals track a different appearance, so exposure to different substrates is crucial in training.
As LFGA is based on the Mongena Concession of the Dinokeng North Game Reserve, the students are have access to many different habitats, including several aquatic settings. This is a blessing as during Nature Training, you get exposed to muddy substrate with water species tracks and signs such as Water Mongoose, Nile Crocodile, Water Monitor, Cape Clawless Otter, Amphibians and many Bird species from 3 Banded Plover to African Jacana, Spurwing Goose and many more.
Nile Crocodile Track
Pictured below is a Blue Wildebeest Track. In this substrate it is fairly clear, and you can see the boxy shape, ‘squarish’ at the front, and the broad gap at the back.
In mud animals can slip and slide, however based on sufficient evidence, you are still able to identify the track. We had a Blue Wildebeest that had slipped in mud and had ‘skidded’. This was one the more difficult questions asked on the day. The trainers teach you in such a case to step away, and look around to see what other evidence you can find, in order to reach your conclusion. In this case, there were clearer Wildebeest tracks in the road nearby leading in and out of the muddy patch, as well as Wildebeest dung nearby.
What I love most about Track and Sign, is solving the puzzle by putting all the pieces together, and I can confidently say that this is the way you are trained.
Nature Training is not only about the tracks the mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects etc leave behind, it is also very much about the signs left behind.
At a typical sequence of questions, one student was examining a scrub hare tracks in soft sand, one was looking at an Aaardvark burrow to determine what animal had dug it, another was looking at a bird track, and one more was inspecting conical structures being pushed up in the sand by termites. It is the job of the student being assessed to observe the circled track/sign and to then tell the assessor who left the tracks or the digging or who made the sand structure.
“What on Earth is that?” you may ask of the picture on the below? Why would I include this when the topic is Track and Sign? Well, it is what we call a Bag Worm, which is actually a moth belonging to the family Psychidae.
There are several species of Bag Worm in South Africa, and at LFGA I have seen two types; one in a tiny silky “bag” on a tree, and a conical shaped one in what looks like a “bag” covered in sand. This particular species in the photo is an adult female Bag Worm that has spun her silk bag, incorporating plant matter such as leaves and twigs. She then drags the bag around until she is happy with the spot she has found. Females are flightless and larva-like in appearance, while males are winged and look more typically like moths. After mating, the female seals the bag, lays eggs and dies.
The eggs hatch and the larvae then feed on the female’s remains… weird! Why am I telling you all of this? This is part of the fun and challenge of track and sign. Yes you do get trained and asked about the smallest things in the bush as well.
So is Nature Training simply sitting in a vehicle observing tracks? Most definitely not. It is a very interactive, all-encompassing learning experience which challenges everyone to learn as much as you can, from the smallest ant, termite or bagworm, to signs left by animals on trees, to tracks of the smallest bird to the largest antelope. If you are a nature lover, someone wanting to become a tracker, or a Field Guide wanting to improve your knowledge and have one of the best add-ons to your CV, this is the course for you, and LFGA is the place to do it for sure!
Stay tuned for more in our blog series!